I’ve worked in a global corporate company and in some large public sector institutions. Every one of them has gone through some sort of major change programme while I was there. It’s the nature of the beast, nothing is perfect so every five years or so it gets reinvented—usually fixing a real problem by creating a different one.
I’ve never been a change manager but in some of these changes they’ve been things I needed to happen or things I was tasked with implementing. On other occasions they’ve been done to me, which is about as delightful as it sounds.
At my previous University we were early on in a project to implement some changes to teaching that would (all being well) improve things for students. I remember my manager expressing consternation and confusion that those we were needing to change weren’t excited about the potential changes. I know, it was a naïve thought. I looked at her and said, “because all change is loss.”
I think that surprised her, but it’s a truism. The kind of churches I’ve been part of are dynamic and change fairly frequently. This is a great strength and a great weakness. It is always pastorally difficult to help a congregation through a change—even a relatively minor one—because for someone change is always loss.
Usually for those deciding on the change the loss is a desirable one, which can make it easy to lose sight of the fact that it won’t be for everyone, even if you think it should be. If you’re trying to lead change then people will be resistant to it if there is no tangible good. We have to remember that change usually challenges our underlying stories.
When change is done to you rather than with you that loss is inevitably pain rather than gain. It’s impossible to see the relative goods of the change or understand why its being done if you are a subject instead of a participant. Anyone who has been through a company reorganisation can testify to this.
Which is to say that if you’re a church leader and you’re changing something in your church’s life (and you probably are, let’s be honest), you need to consider carefully who will be impacted by the change. I would really encourage assuming someone will be rather than thinking they’ll be fine. What’s the story that this change will affect for them? Where will it hurt them, even though that wasn’t your intention?
This means organic or incremental change is easier for people to handle because we’re used to lightly editing our stories as we go along. It’s easier to grow in a different direction with judicious use of garden twine and patience than it is to demolish something and rebuild. But, growing is slower, and messier, and the outcomes aren’t so clearly defined. Yet, I wonder if gardening is a more apt metaphor for leading a church than construction.
Any port in a storm
I love change, I’m the sort of person who would gladly rip things up and start again because I enjoy the process. I recall when we moved to Birmingham and were packing up our home at one point I turned to my wife and asked if we could just burn it all. I was reasonably serious (obviously not the books, I’m not a Philistine). That’s a gift, but it’s also a curse. Most people aren’t wired like that. Even when you are, having change done to you, or being forgotten about when change is happening, is still very painful.
Your frustrations over those who simply don’t want to change are understandable. Being so rooted in your stories that you become hidebound is no use to anyone, but neither is rootless endless change. You might have noticed that the pace of change in society and culture has accelerated in the last few decades—that’s a sign of our rootlessness, the fruit of the philosophy of post-structuralism (and all the things that led to it), and it’s not a quality that the church should emulate. If anything, we should be the rock in the storm that stands amid the endless winds and points to the Rock of Ages.
Learning to not be like the world
If the pace of change is high, some people will be left behind. They experience a sort of ontological whiplash and are then often berated for it as they ask what appear to you to be strange questions. Odd questions are normally a sign you need to back up.
I was recently given some writing advice about working with editors: I was told to assume that however much I might hate an editors suggested change, the editor is right about the problem even if they’re wrong about the solution. In church life, those strange complaints and questions are putting their finger on something, even if you’re fairly sure the people you’re talking to aren’t right about what it is. Don’t dismiss it, find another solution.
But to extrapolate this wider onto society, we live in a world of constant change. The pace has increased since industrialisation and is accelerating. It can leave us experiencing that same change whiplash. I know I’ve asked questions about a cultural trend before in the workplace and had people look at me like I have three heads—it does come of working in universities but people who are with the ‘programme’ often have little tolerance for those that aren’t.
Our churches shouldn’t be like this. Certainly, they shouldn’t be slavishly following cultural winds, but even with our own changes with time we need to treat people like they’re people.
Gardening the wind
To extend the gardening analogy a little, growth is faster when its unbounded and freer, though less predictable in its final form. Our culture has been growing for some centuries without a discernible telos—it hasn’t been growing in a direction, but just growing unhindered. It’s the difference between a tended garden and a field gone to seed. When people—often Christians—ask where the garden has gone people point at the wild overgrown field and call it a garden. This is what comes of sowing the wind, you reap a whirlwind (Hosea 8). Because what we have are weeds, we’ve renamed them crops and pretend to smile while we choke them down raw.
This is not how it’s meant to be—and our churches should act more like tended gardens. We as people need curation. We need a gardener, or we risk turning into human weeds: becoming without arriving. But we need that like plants do, slowly, in the right season, enjoying the timeless delights of growing in the same direction.
Perhaps this metaphor is overblown, or perhaps you’re with me, but this is the mission of the Church: to garden.
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